You’ve probably heard of mindfulness, but have you ever heard of mindlessness?
You’re eating pizza while watching Netflix and, at some point, you look down and realize you had six slices. You didn’t even notice because you were focused on the TV, not your food.
You drive the same route to work every day and, one day, you arrive without remembering if you actually stopped at the stop sign a while back. You had been so lost in your thoughts, you weren’t focusing.
Or this: Someone is trying to talk to you, but you’ve got your phone in hand. With your attention devoted entirely to that little device, you never heard a word the other person said.
People often engage in acts of mindlessness like this—and it’s not good for mental health.
In the moment
Mindfulness is the practice of being present and in the moment.
It usually involves focusing on the five senses: touch, sight, hearing, smell and taste.
Sometimes it’s helpful to engage in an activity mindfully, even if only for a few minutes.
As a psychotherapist with Spectrum Health, I like to share the following examples of how to practice mindfulness.
While taking a shower, focus for a few minutes on how the water feels on your skin. Focus on the sound of the water, the smell of the steam, the water circling the drain.
While taking a walk, notice all the things you can hear and see on your walk.
While washing dishes, focus on the smell of the soap, the look of the bubbles, how the dishes feel sliding in your hands in the warm water. Listen closely to the sound of them clinking in the sink.
Engage in some deep breathing. Focus on how the air feels cooler entering your nose and warmer leaving your mouth. Notice the sound of your breath, the smell in the air. Feel your lungs expand and contract. Watch your chest rise and fall.
These exercises only need to last a few minutes to reduce stress and anxiety.
When your mind starts to wander—and it will—gently redirect it to what you’re supposed to be focusing on.
Use Teflon mind, a skill learned in dialectical behavior therapy. You can visualize how Teflon cookware lets food slide right off it. In much the same way, your mind can let thoughts slide away, allowing you to go back to what you were doing.
Another way to use mindfulness is to focus on one sense.
Pop a piece of chocolate in your mouth and focus on the taste for a minute.
Play a nature sounds app on your phone, or go outside and listen to the birds for a few minutes.
Look at something in the room and describe it to the fullest. Imagine you’re Tolkien, describing a scene.
Do’s and don’ts
Another key to mindfulness: Don’t judge.
Don’t judge the birds as annoying or too loud when you’re listening to them.
When thoughts start to pop up—“My foot itches,” “I have so much to do,” or “What did she mean when she said that to me earlier?”—just notice it and let it slide off, like an egg on a Teflon pan.
Then redirect your mind to what you’re supposed to be focusing on.
Mindfulness is great for reducing anxiety, depression, PTSD symptoms, OCD, substance use and may aid in weight loss.
Pick something calming to focus on when engaging in a mindfulness skill.
Don’t focus on the sound of your kid screaming, or the way the dirt on your floor looks.
Don’t be surprised if you end up redirecting your thoughts and using your Teflon mind a lot when you first start practicing mindfulness.
Don’t get frustrated.
Just remember: Practice makes perfect.
Break up mindfulness exercises and feel free to keep them short, just a few minutes or so.
Technology can be a big distractor, but you can also learn to use it to your advantage.
Set reminders on your phone to practice. Use any one of the many mindfulness apps available.
To help you get started in your journey, consider this helpful thought from ancient philosopher Lao Tzu: “If you are depressed, you’re living in the past. If you are anxious, you’re living in the future. If you are at peace, you’re living in the present.”